Rail travel is becoming optional. There is no longer a captive commuter market and the case for fares reform must be heard

We’ve taken the message to No 10 and 11. Will they listen?

Last weekend, the media was given the good news that £7bn was going to be spent on green transport in some of our major conurbations outside London, including Birmingham and Manchester.

This is not to be sniffed at. It is a substantial sum, even if around £5.5bn had already been announced, though now the allocation of the money is known too. Of course, re-announcing good news is not a new trend. Some government good news gets re-released more often than Merry Christmas Everybody by Slade.

By Monday some £26bn of budget announcements had been made to the media, infuriating the HoC speaker who regularly chastises the government for making important policy decisions outside of parliament first, just as John Bercow did before him.

This time he invoked the memory of Hugh Dalton, the Labour chancellor who in 1947 gave some details of his budget to a waiting journalist while entering the chamber to deliver his budget. The information appeared in the press at lightning speed before the House was told, and the chancellor had to resign. No chance of that happening now. The speaker can huff and puff as much as he likes. It won’t change this government habit.

Selectively pre-leaking good bits of the budget over several days guarantees several days of good headlines. Naturally the bad news is not pre-released, sometimes not even present in the chancellor’s budget speech, but is only found days later by a diligent researcher on page 412 of the budget book, section 8, subsection 17.

Anyhow, back to that £7bn for green transport. Readers of this magazine will not need to be convinced that such investment helps social cohesion and helps meet the government’s carbon reduction targets.

And increasingly, green transport investment is being seen by ‘Red Wall’ Conservative MPs as a way of ‘levelling up’. (Was this phrase an invention of Dominic Cummings? It has certainly become the political phrase of the year).

The Network Effects report, backed by the Levelling Up Taskforce of 65 Tory MPs, analysed the numbers of jobs accessible variously by car or public transport. The report referred to “the crippling effects that broken public transport networks are having on access to jobs”.

I am sure the £7bn would not have appeared without pressure from these Red Wall Tories

So on the face of it, there is strong agreement across all political parties, perhaps for the first time ever, that significant investment in public transport is a really good idea. I am sure the £7bn would not have appeared without pressure from these Red Wall Tories.

BUT… all the investment in new zero emission buses, in reopened railway lines, and other public transport enhancements will count for nothing unless they are accompanied by an increase in passenger numbers. A new bus service to an area of employment, a bit of track electrification here and there, has to be accompanied by policies to get people out of their cars, perhaps also away from the home-based laptops, and onto buses and trains.

In the short term, the Treasury has rightly been pushed to ensure the welcome support it has provided over the last 18 months does not end in a cliff edge, to taper off support for the bus and train sectors until numbers are back to where they were.

But will they get back? The outlook for bus is perhaps more promising. Passenger numbers are already back to between 70 and 85%. Those who use public transport are disproportionately those who need it to get to work, or who have no alternative. Even so, interventions are needed, such as more bus lanes, workplace charging as in Nottingham, and, crucially, higher car parking charges.

The challenge for rail is altogether more difficult and more complicated. The issues of the architecture of the railway, notably the end of franchising and the creation of GBR (Great British Railways), have been addressed in the much delayed but finally arrived white paper. Legislation will have to be introduced next year to give effect to this new structure.

But that otherwise comprehensive paper did not address very deeply at all how to get people back on trains. Indeed, there was one particularly gaping hole in that white paper: fares. I have little doubt that the issue had been addressed by the Department for Transport but was then taken out by the Treasury before publication. Without fares reform, rail will fail by some distance to reach its potential.

We are promised an integrated rail paper before Christmas which will hopefully finally grasp that nettle (probably slightly easier and less painful than biting the bullet). In the meantime, here is the recipe for success which the Campaign for Better Transport and I have put together.

Rail travel is becoming optional. No longer is there a captive commuter market that will put up with whatever price increase the government forces upon it. Many who were commuters now have the option of simply staying at home. The Treasury needs to lose the simplistic mindset that they can put up fares without any reduction in numbers travelling.

The latest passenger figures for rail show patronage somewhere around the 65% mark, but that overall figure hides an important trend. Leisure travel has recovered very well. Commuter traffic has not.

The government says it wants white collar workers – the sort who are staying at home – back in the office. The introduction of flexi season tickets, in reality carnets, earlier this year was recognition of the need to do something different. But the Treasury was scared to do anything too radical for fear of losing income, so the flexis have been something of a damp squib. On a small point it might help if they were valid for a calendar month, for example from the 17th of one month to the 16th of the next, rather than a fiddly four weeks.

It is noticeable that the government is reluctant to give any information as regards take up of flexis, even in response to parliamentary questions, citing commercial confidentiality. That tells its own story.

The Treasury is fearful of fares reform. It is like a rookie swimmer, a ring round its midriff and holding on to the end of the pool for dear life. It needs to let go and it will find it can swim. Or to put it in economic terms, it needs to speculate to accumulate.

The informed mutterings suggest that the last RPI+1 increase raised almost nothing as it actively pushed people off rail. Is it not possible that freezing or even reducing fares might gain passengers and actually increase the overall income take?

It is worth remembering that we have had 11 years now of a freeze on fuel duty, during which time rail fares have risen 36%

It is worth remembering that we have had 11 years now of a freeze on fuel duty, during which time rail fares have risen 36%. This compares with just 9% in motoring costs. The government has been encouraging modal shift to cars. Let us now have a fares freeze on rail.

With commuters in mind in particular, we need a much improved flexi season ticket offer. For those who might return to five day commuting, let us have a season ticket sale, of say a third off any season bought between now and the end of February. And given that the Friday morning peak is now much quieter than midweek, let us abolish the peak on a Friday so that all tickets that day are off-peak. More generally we need to end the 9.30am cliff edge between peak and non-peak.

More generally we need an early date set for the extension of Pay-As-You-Go in the London area, and its roll-out in all major conurbations, with a daily cap as applies to Oyster in London. But more than that, we need to ensure people are not financially penalised for changing modes. A to B by bus may be one journey but even in London, changing from bus to tube to get from A to B means you pay twice, albeit within the daily cap. That cannot be right.

We need to ensure that single leg pricing is introduced. It is indefensible that an off-peak single costs basically the same as an off-peak return. And we need to make sure that when people buy a ticket, or should I say permit to travel, they can be confident that they have got the cheapest appropriate fare for the journey, which might be the split ticketing option, and that this should apply whether they buy online or at a ticket office. A passenger should not need to have the railway’s fare structure as your specialist subject on Mastermind.

There are of course other steps that need to be taken to lure passengers back. As a central principle, the journey itself should not be regarded as an unwelcome necessity but rather as an enjoyable experience. Let us have comfortable seats rather than the ironing boards some official at the DfT decided were appropriate for the Brighton trains. It has been a long way down from the waiter service and clean table cloths of the Brighton Belle. We cannot go back to that, but can we at least have someone selling tea and coffee?

The railway needs to adjust to meet the needs of those who want to use it, and for the moment that is predominantly optional leisure travel. Yet on many lines, off-peak services have been cut since the pandemic hit, which actually saves very little money as all the fixed costs are still there. But it means that when I travel up from Lewes to London off-peak, as I did last Sunday, the train was heaving with people standing all the way from Gatwick. We need more off-peak trains.

We also need Network Rail to stop closing the railway on Sundays as if this is still 1954 and nobody wants to travel. Sunday is a busy growth day.

So the railway needs to adjust, and to be fair the industry is showing signs of beginning to do so. But it badly needs fares reform which legally can only be delivered by the government. The structure we have, which is essentially one created by British Rail decades ago, is hopelessly out of date and a bar to recovery and growth.

Treasury ministers and officials: are you listening?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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